Kettlebell Shoulder Exercises are a great way to improve the movement, strength and mobility of your body.
Understanding the Shoulders
These complex ball-and-socket contraptions allow for incredibly diverse movement and function. But this versatile setup can also be a common area of pain when mistreated.
Using a kettlebell is one of the best ways to promote the proper functioning of the shoulder, while also building size and strength.
Note: If you have zero or limited experience with kettlebells, I suggest you find an RKC- or SFG-certified instructor to take you through the movements and correct any individual movement patterns.
The muscles of the shoulder support and produce the movements of the shoulder girdle. They attach the appendicular skeleton of the upper limb to the axial skeleton of the trunk. Four of them are found on the anterior aspect of the shoulder, whereas the rest are located on the shoulder’s posterior aspect and in the back.
The shoulder has about eight muscles that attach to the scapula, humerus, and clavicle. These muscles form the outer shape of the shoulder and underarm. The muscles in the shoulder aid in a wide range of movement and help protect and maintain the main shoulder joint, known as the glenohumeral joint.
Based on their location, the shoulder muscles are grouped into:
Anterior axio-appendicular muscles (thoraco-appendicular muscles)
Posterior axio-appendicular muscles (scapulo-humeral muscles)
Other muscles that aid in shoulder movement include:
- Infraspinatus: This rotator cuff muscle helps with the raising and lowering of the upper arm.
- Triceps brachii: This large muscle in the back of the upper arm helps straighten the arm.
- Pectoralis major: This large fan-shaped muscle stretches from the armpit up to the collarbone and down across the lower chest region. It connects to the sternum (breastbone).
- Pectoralis minor: The smaller of the pectoralis muscles, this muscle fans out from the upper ribs up to the shoulder area.
- Teres major: This muscle helps rotate the upper arm.
- Biceps brachii: Commonly known as the bicep muscle, this muscle rests on top of the humerus bone. It rotates the forearm and also flexes the elbow.
- Latissimus dorsi: This flat rectangular muscle of the back helps the arms rotate as well as move away and closer to the body.
- Subscapularis: This is a large triangular muscle near the humerus and collarbone. It helps rotate the humerus.
- Supraspinatus: This small muscle is located at the top of the shoulder and helps raise the arm away from the body.
Kettlebell Shoulder Exercises
Add these into your training.
1. Straight Arm Overhead Kettlebell Hold
Probably not the first exercise you expect when you think of kettlebell exercises for the shoulders but a very important one.
The kettlebell is helped up into the straight arm overhead position and then held there for up to 60 seconds.
During the overhead hold the wrist and arm should be kept dead straight, the shoulder, back and down, in its socket and the ear kept away from the shoulder.
There are 3 progressions to this exercise:
Half Kneeling Position (as shown above, back knee is on the floor)
Standing Position (keep abs and glutes tight)
Walking (take a walk with the kettlebell held overhead)
Overhead Kneeling to Standing (see video below)
The goal is to strengthen the stabilising muscles around the shoulder joint.
2. Kettlebell Shoulder Exercises – Kettlebell Windmill
Next you work into the shoulder joint even deeper by adding move movement and rotation through the joint.
The kettlebell is held overhead as before with a straight arm and wrist and then you reach down towards the floor with the opposite hand.
The ultimate goals is to reach the opposite ankle with the hand while keeping both legs straight.
However, for the beginner achieving this full position can be very challenging both on the shoulder as well as the flexibility through the back and hamstrings.
Modifications can be made to help progress the exercise:
Practice first without the kettlebell
Keep the one leg straight while slightly bending the other leg
Reach down with straight legs between the feet as far as possible without bending the knees
Progress towards the opposite ankle
The exercise should be performed slowly and under control. Keep your eye on the kettlebell when descending.
3. Kettlebell Shoulder Exercises – Kettlebell Swing
Kettle bell Swings should be thought of as a pulling movement. It targets the posterior chain and essentially you are loading and de-loading the back of the body as you accelerate and decelerate the kettlebell.
Be warned the eccentric or deceleration part of kettlebell swings is what causes muscle soreness so you could be walking like John Wayne for a few days if you perform too many kb swings early on.
Kb swings are a dynamic movement. As the kettlebell descends from the top part of the movement gravity takes its toll and the overall weight of the kettlebell increases, so a 16kg kettlebell will feel much heavier at the bottom of the kettlebell swing.
Also at the bottom of the kettlebell swing you are decelerating its load and forcing the muscles to absorb and then reverse the swings momentum. It is for this reason that you can get some truly amazing results without having to use a really heavy kettlebell for the Swing.
4. Kettlebell Shoulder Exercises – Kettlebell Turkish Get Up
Perhaps one of the most important of all the kettlebell exercises along with the swing is the turkish get up.
The get up conditions the whole body from top to toe working hard into the core muscles and also challenges the stability of the shoulder.
The kettlebell is held with a straight arm and wrist as the participant stands up from a lying down position and then returns back down to the floor.
During the complete movement of the turkish get up the shoulder is forced to stabilise the joint through various angles.
The turkish get up is a challenging exercise and so it should be progressed as follows:
Practice without a kettlebell
Practice by holding a glass of water
Practice the Half Get Up with a kettlebell
Practice the Full Get Up with a kettlebell
5. Kettlebell Shoulder Push Press
Pressing overhead is easier than holding so many people will avoid these holding exercises but that would be a big mistake.
The ability to hold overhead will certainly help prevent future shoulder injuries in the future.
A halfway progression between strict shoulder pressing overhead and holding is the kettlebell shoulder push press. I recommend all beginners start with the push press before moving on to the strict overhead kb shoulder press later.
The kettlebell push press involves using the legs and hips slightly just to get the kettlebell out of the sticking point when it’s held in the racked position at the chest. Once the kettlebell has been bumped up to the top position the descent is very important.
Control the kettlebell down very slowly actively using your latissimus dorsi muscles (under your armpit) as a kind of shelf to help guide the kettlebell down again.
6. Kettlebell Thruster or Squat & Shoulder Press
The kettlebell thruster takes the push press and makes it even more dynamic by exaggerating the push part of the movement.
The kettlebell squat and press is a full body exercise that not only works the shoulders but heavily challenges the legs, buttocks, hamstrings, abs, back stabilisers and cardio.
The demands on the shoulders are similar to the push press in that the sticking point from the racked position is avoided due to the momentum coming out of the bottom of the squat position.
You will also find the shoulders fatigue just holding and maintaining the kettlebell throughout the exercise.